Indulge me a moment for a story.
This one takes place in 1961 in an office at MIT. A mathematics and meteorology professor, Edward Lorenz, is using an early-generation computer to run a weather simulation. His model uses 12 variables like wind speed and temperature, and Lorenz decides he wants to rerun part of one of his simulations. So he reenters the data, starts the program, and leaves to get a cup of coffee. When he returns, the simulated weather patterns over a two-month period have been dramatically transformed.
Lorenz, it turned out, had rounded off one of the variables he reentered from .506127 to .506. The difference is minuscule. But the change it produced was immense. And from that discovery, Lorenz came up with the insight we now know as the butterfly effect.
That discovery — that a small change in an initial condition can produce a large change in a long-term outcome — was hugely important and became the founding principle of chaos theory, a very influential branch of mathematics. It also became part of pop culture thanks to the terminology Lorenz adopted to explain his finding. You no doubt have heard variations over the years: The flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.
The butterfly effect has shown up since in numerous movies and literature, from Stephen King's "11/22/63" to the children's book, "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie." The ground was first trod perhaps by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury who predated Lorenz in his 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder," in which a time-traveling T. rex hunter steps on a butterfly, whose death 66 million years ago causes a rift in the cosmos that leads to the changed world the hunter discovers when he returns to the present.
The butterfly effect comes to mind as we struggle to deal with the coronavirus crisis. From a small change in an initial condition — a single instance of an unknown virus silently hopping from a single animal to a single person in a single city in central China — has come a large change in a long-term outcome. More than 360,000 people around the world have died, nearly 6 million have been infected, economies have been wrecked, and no end is in sight.
The virus didn't have to proceed as it did, of course. The outcome might have been different if governments had taken other measures. But that, too, is part of the subtlety of Lorenz's insight. The initial change can have a big effect, but it might not. Part of the mystery and intrigue is that you never know which will be true. Or, to put it as Lorenz might have, it's hard to predict a complex outcome with any certainty because of all the little things that might happen along the way.
Is a 15-year-old schoolgirl sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament holding a sign that reads "Skolstrejk för klimatet" (School strike for climate) a lonely voice for change? Or does Greta Thunberg become the leader of a worldwide student-fueled climate change protest movement, Fridays for Future, and give eagerly awaited speeches at the UN and around the globe?
Each of us is a butterfly. We all flap our wings. Often, it's to little effect. But sometimes, whether we mean to or not, we unleash a cascade of horrors. And sometimes, we set loose a geyser of good.
While the potential for great effect lies with all of us, we never know what's going to reverberate. Perhaps we should always act like it will.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.